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Saturday, December 5, 2015

Tait

Matt Tait: Horejsi Center kind to KU

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Need an explanation for why the Kansas University volleyball team chose to host first- and second-round NCAA Tournament matches inside cozy, 1,300-seat Horejsi Family Athletics Center instead of quadrupling the attendance by playing at Allen Fieldhouse?

One word tells the story — attitude.

Playing inside the gymnasium where they lost just one match this season (to mighty Texas) — and have lost just seven times since 2012 — the Jayhawks operated with the look of the hunter while their Border War rivals from Missouri merely looked hopeless.

It was almost as if No. 9 Kansas (28-2) looked offended that the Tigers, or whichever team may have fallen into their spot in this year’s bracket, even would consider coming into the aluminum fieldhouse with the idea of winning.

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Kansas junior Cassie Wait dives to make a dig during Kansas' second round NCAA volleyball tournament match against Missouri on Friday night at the Horejsi Center. The Jayhawks sent the Tigers packing with a three set sweep.

“We talk about why we want to play matches in Horejsi,” said KU coach Ray Bechard after his team’s three-set sweep of 25th-ranked Missouri that ended with a thrilling Kansas comeback. “I think that’s a pretty good example of why. I think that’s about as thrilling of a finish as you’re ever gonna see.”

Before finishing the sweep, 27-25, after trailing 24-20, Kansas dominated the first two sets both on the scoreboard — 25-16 and 25-13 — and on the court. Nine Jayhawks contributed meaningful and critical statistics during the victory, and a few of them added a layer of cockiness to their accomplishments.

In the second set, after winning a joust at the net with Missouri middle blocker Emily Thater, KU setter Ainise Havili landed and sent a chilly stare Thater’s way. Border War bitterness at its finest? Hardly.

“That stare-down, I was tired, and I didn’t really know where to look,” admitted Havili, who finished with 40 assists, nearly three times as many as Mizzou’s top setter. “It happened to be at her, no offense to her.”

Of Havili’s statement stuff, Bechard said: “That’s when you deflate other teams. Ainise kind of played that off, but she wins 99 percent of those. She’s a little pit bull.”

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Press Conferences & Post-Game Interviews

KU volleyball coach Ray Bechard and players after earning program's 2nd trip to Sweet 16

KU volleyball coach Ray Bechard and players Ainise Havili, Tayler Soucie and Kelsie Payne talk about sweeping Missouri Friday night to earn the program's 2nd ever trip to Sweet 16.

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Intended or not, the Big 12 setter of the year’s extra gesture fit perfectly into the way her Jayhawks controlled the match and raced to a two-set lead.

Havili was not alone in bringing a little extra attitude to the floor. Heavy hitter Kelsie Payne, who led all players with 16 kills, followed each one with that “Mm-hmm” style head nod that seemed to indicate she knew she could not be stopped. Even before the match began, sophomore outside hitter Madison Rigdon stared into her teammates’ eyes during the huddle that preceded the first serve and said simply, “Let’s go,” with an extra word added in the middle for emphasis.

“I’ve been on a lot of teams where you have to try to drag energy out of people,” said junior middle blocker Tayler Soucie, who finished with a match-high seven blocks. “Over in Europe, we got to know each other better and be more comfortable around each other so we could bring out our weirdness. It’s great to have the energy from everybody, and we feed off of each other so much.”

The way the Jayhawks arrived prepared and jumped from Minute One, it’s hard to imagine anyone having beaten them in their home gym on this night.

“I think the crowd helped with that a lot,” Havili said. “We were amped before we even got here.”

That juice and KU’s ability to play in its always-wild-and-rockin’ home gym thanks to the NCAA’s decision to lift the minimum capacity requirements for host schools, led to a memorable night in what has become the best stretch of volleyball in school history.

Overjoyed but far from satisfied, this group now heads to San Diego with its sights set on earning a spot in the Elite Eight for the first time and crashing the party for which invitations typically only are sent to the best of the best. Penn State. Stanford. Texas. Nebraska.

“We want to be an elite team and an elite program year after year,” Bechard said. “And I think we’re on our way to doing that.”

Comments

David Kelley-Wood 5 years, 12 months ago

Not to be contrary about it, but this team has also been pretty kind to Horejsi Center. I wonder to what extent the dominating wins over both Furman and Fizzou can be attributed to the home court advantage, and how much was due to improvement throughout the season. I'm thinking it was more of the latter.

Joe Joseph 5 years, 12 months ago

Great point, David. This team lost as many matches on the road this season as it did at home. The real brilliance of this program is how it's developed into one which doesn't have to play in the friendly confines of Horejsi to compete and to win. The coaching staff and the players deserve all of the credit.

Gerry Butler 5 years, 12 months ago

I'm curious to see what our pct of matches are still sweeps 3-0 now. I know at one point in the season we had lost only 2 sets the entire season. Not that it is any big deal, more curiousity then anything, as long as we come out on top no matter if it is 3 sets or it takes 4 or the 5 as long as we win - - -It's all good. these ladies have done an outstanding job, keep rolling ladies, looking forward to next weekend ROCK CHALK ALL DAY LONG BABY

Theodore Thadogweadore 5 years, 12 months ago

I think they have only lost 13 sets. No more than 15.

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